|Farewell to Larry Cunningham|
He was a lovely man. He was special. He had the gift of a mighty country music voice and, despite his huge success in the entertainment business in the peak era of the unique showbands, he never lost the common touch.
It was with real regret I heard of his death after illness a couple of weeks ago at the age of 74 years. May he rest in peace.
This yarn, I suppose, is of most interest to the thousands of you over there who are Irish born and who certainly danced many of your younger nights away to the sound and beat of the Mighty Avons showband fronted by the farmer's son from Granard.
Your young dancing and courting days happened during an unusual largely rural social period when the hundreds of new showbands blossomed like musical mushrooms in every province. They supplanted the staid sit-down orchestras and dance bands which had ruled the roost in the forties and fifties.
They underscored an exciting new Ireland of that time. Largely playing covers of the popular chart hits of the time, they also enthusiastically played other musics like jazz and swing and South American and mainland European tempos.
They wore bright mohair suits and flung themselves around the stages in dance halls and the summertime marquees in a complete contrast to the orchestras. They were flamboyant and caught the new mood.
Amazingly, many of you will remember, they were silenced in the provinces during the seven penitential weeks of Lent because of the ruling power then of the church! That was when they "emigrated" briefly to England and the United States to play for the Irish dancers there.
The showbands represented a small industry. They gave good employment to thousands of musicians in their 20-year heyday. Their presence created a chain of huge commercial ballrooms in all counties -- the largest of these operated by the family of former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds.
All the bands were fronted by featured vocalists. All of them had their own followings.
And if the Royal Showband led by Brendan Bowyer and the Capital led by the late Butch Moore and the Miami fronted by Dickie Rock were the top three nationally then, for sure, the Mighty Avons fronted by Larry Cunningham were always right up there. In many regions of the west, actually, they would always draw the biggest attendances.
I think there were three or four main factors involved in this. If the other stars like Bowyer and Moore and Rock and their bands were drawn from urban backgrounds, and subtly reflected this in their performances, then the Mighty Avons were truly a rural band in every way.
Larry was born and raised on a 50-acre farm and somehow looked and acted like a farmer even in a mohair suit. Several members of the Avons were also farm bred. There was often farming talk with their fans after the dances were over.
Also their music tended more towards the old country and western music always popular in the provinces from the beginning. And, critically, in the Bill Haley years, with a better beat for the new craze of jiving than pure pop.
Some of the commercial ballrooms even had notices banning jiving stiletto heels on their sprung maple floors initially installed for waltzing and fox-trotting beneath all the spinning crystal balls where boy met girl and torrents of marriages inevitably followed. Ah yes, ye remember it well.
But it was Larry Cunningham's gift and good fortune that his Longford voice was at least as richly deep and low textured (right to the end!) as that of the then immensely popular American country singer Jim Reeves.
He built up a repertoire of covers of Reeves hits such as "He'll Have to Go" in the early sixties, and his real breakthrough nationally came in Donegal in 1963 when he deputized in Lifford for Reeves himself after Reeves walked off the stage because the piano was out of tune.
It is a fact that Reeves died in a plane crash the following year, but by then the Irish dancers were even fonder of Larry's renderings than they were of the originals. And that began a fruitful half-century in the entertainment business for the farmer's son from Longford.
Too bad that he had to go from us so relatively early. He was singing away right to the end.
Only a bare handful of local showbands survive today. Most of the old ballrooms that Larry filled down the decades are either closed or converted for other uses, typically warehousing.
The social scene in rural Ireland is now dominated by nite clubs and discos in the nearest towns. Nobody jives any more except at family weddings or in Lisdoonvarna each September. (Is it the same over there?)
But Larry Cunningham's easy, treacly voice, intact to the end, was always popular and sought after. He will be missed at many levels, not just by his family and close friends but by an Ireland with a continuing warm folk memory.
I have two of his many popular CDs and I'm listening now, almost with tears in my eyes, to his version of "Adios Amigo."
Adios amigo indeed. RIP.
RTE coverage of the death of Larry Cunningham: